I can still remember the first time I tasted it. What a shock! I mean with “butter” in the name it was not at all what I had expected. It should have been a clue that where I lived then the other, more popular milk—the stuff I drank at school—was called “sweet milk.”
Unpleasantly sour with a cloddy texture, I found it impossible to believe that anyone could actually like buttermilk and dismissed it for a long time. As I learned to cook, I discovered it was a key ingredient in many southern specialties like biscuits and cornbread, because it softens the gluten and produces a tender texture.
Buttermilk got its name because it was the liquid left in the churn after making butter. However nearly all the buttermilk sold commercially today is made from low fat or skim milk that is cultured, often with locust gum and carrageenan added as thickeners. For a while, there was the widespread and abhorrent practice of adding artificial butter-colored flakes to make it more resemble its original namesake.
More than anything, most people relate buttermilk with ranch dressing. If you’ve ever made it yourself using the Hidden Valley mix, what starts out as a lumpy mess with stirring miraculousy becomes a smooth and thick dressing. The lactic acid in the buttermilk curdles the egg protein of the mayonnaise, resulting in a thick and homogenized mixture. In baking, it’s also the acid in buttermilk that reacts with baking soda to produces carbon dioxide and acts as a leavening agent.
Tastes change and just as I incorporated many other cultured dairy products like sour cream and yogurt into my diet, I became a fan of buttermilk as well. It’s not only versatile, but can be lower in calories than the alternative. Being America’s Dairyland and all, I just wish someone local would start selling the real deal.
Here are a few of my favorite local buttermilk-made treats.
The Old Fashioned is renowned for its fried foods and its exemplary haystack onion strings are enrobed in buttermilk batter before deep frying. A buttermilk batter inevitably produces a delicate and crunchy crispness.
I originally traveled to Double S BBQ in Cambridge to sample the barbecue—something I love dearly and am very particular about. I wasn’t disappointed, but the real serendipity was Maw Maw’s buttermilk pie. It’s a variation of chess pie, a baked sweet custard pie guaranteed to make any Southerner swoon.
Going out to breakfast here, one is more likely to encounter a bagel or English muffin than a buttermilk biscuit, but they take top billing on the menu at 4 & 20. Whether with homemade jam, sausage gravy, or as a base for a breakfast sandwich, they’re too good to be passed up.
The buttermilk pancakes at Marigold Kitchen topped with orange-almond butter and real maple syrup can’t be beat … except maybe the variation with blueberries. Both options are available daily on the breakfast menu.
A first stop for many at the Dane County Farmers’ Market is Goose Gulch Farmstead for one of Helen’s potato buttermilk donuts. Handmade and fried in lard in a cast iron skillet, they are indeed like grandmother use to make.
Genuine buttermilk may not be available at the grocery, but you’ll find it in Roth Käse Buttermilk Blue, a mild but tangy blue cheese that’s perfect for salad dressing or dip. It sold at many places that feature artisan cheeses, like Metcalfe’s Market, Jenifer Street Market and the Willy Street Coop.
Italian Cream Cake
There is nothing Italian about this cake nor is it make with cream, but rather buttermilk. Now popular throughout the South, some credit New Orleans’ Creole Italian community with its invention. For many years it was featured on the menu of Pascal’s Manle Restaurant, a much beloved neighborhood restaurant there.
½ cup solid vegetable shortening, at room temperature
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 cups shredded coconut
1 cup finely chopped toasted pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Butter and line with baking parchment 3 9-inch round cake pans.
In the bowl of an electric mixer cream the shortening, butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together onto a sheet of waxed or parchment paper. With the mixer on low speed, add the sifted ingredients in batches alternately with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, and gently fold into the prepared batter. Add the coconut, pecans and vanilla and fold into the batter. Divide the batter among the 3 prepared cake pans and bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and a tester comes out clean when inserted into the middle of each cake. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for about 10 minutes before carefully turning them out onto a wire rack to finish cooling. When the cakes are completely cool, assemble the layers with the frosting and frost the sides and top.
Serves 10 to 12.
Cream Cheese Frosting:
8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
16-ounces confectioners’ sugar, sifted
¾ cup finely chopped toasted pecans
In a large bowl combine the cream cheese, butter and vanilla and beat with an electric mixer beat until smooth and creamy. Add the sifted powdered sugar and mix until thoroughly combined. Fold in the nuts.